“You have heard it said of old… but I say to you…”
Laws, rules, regulations. We don’t like them. They cramp our style, make life more difficult, arouse guilt and shame. For example, how many of us actually drive the speed limit? In fact, how annoyed do we get we when we encounter someone who is driving at or under the speed limit?
Who of us waits for the walk signal before crossing the street? I remember how amazed I was in 1980 in Germany to see university students waiting for the walk sign as they returned to the dorm after a night of drinking. There wasn’t a car on the streets, but still they waited for the walk sign before crossing.
We especially don’t like religious laws. Oh, the ten commandments may be all right, but that’s just because they’re so general we don’t think they apply to our lives, or we don’t really care whether we break them or not—for example, “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.” Or “Thou shalt not covet.” We don’t really think our activities on Sunday, working, or shopping, or watching football games, rise to the level of breaking that commandment. Or our thought, I really wish I had his car, or her house, or whatever. That thought doesn’t break the 10th commandment, and if it does, well, we’re not going to burn in hell for it.
But how many of you were made uncomfortable by Jesus’ words in the gospel today: “If you are angry with someone, you will be liable to judgment, and if you call someone a fool, you will liable to the hell of fire.”
Or his words about adultery and divorce? They can cut pretty deep for us because of our own experiences with broken relationships, but also because of the ubiquity of sex in our culture—sex sells, as they say.
We are all heirs of the sixties, and even longer back, heirs of centuries of the Protestant distinction between law and gospel or the evangelical prioritization of conversion, or religious experience, over religious practice, including when it comes to “laws.”
The Sermon on the Mount, that section of Matthew that stretches from chapter 5 through chapter 7 includes some of the most familiar teachings of Jesus as well as some of the most difficult and challenging. It begins with the Beatitudes-“blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted; blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth; blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled.” It’s also the location for the Lord’s Prayer, which we recite at every Eucharistic celebration.
Although Jesus’ statements in the Sermon on the Mount, and perhaps most pointedly in the section read this morning, present challenges to our ears, there are underlying questions or issues that need our attention before trying to make sense for our lives of what Jesus is saying.
These antitheses—you have heard it say of do not murder, but I say to you… show Jesus working with Torah (the Jewish law). There’s a common assumption among Christians, going back centuries, that Jesus put an end to the Jewish law—that the Jewish community of Jesus’ day struggled to live by the hundreds of narrow prescriptions in the law laid down in the Pentateuch, were oppressed by its demands, and sought freedom from it—a freedom preached by Jesus Christ, Paul, and early Christianity.
Well, it’s not quite so simple as that. In fact, that common understanding is wrong on two counts. It’s wrong concerning first-century Judaism, and it’s wrong concerning Jesus. We know from first-century sources as well as from earlier biblical texts that that the Mosaic law was perceived by Jews as a good thing. Our psalm today expresses that idea:
“Happy are they whose way is blameless, who walk in the laws of the Lord.”
Throughout the Psalms, there’s a consistent sense of joy for the law and that continued down through Jesus’ day. There is ongoing development in the understanding of the law in Judaism and by the first century, the Pharisees were seeking to broaden the law’s influence and range. They were applying the Torah to everyone, not just to the priests. While we may think of that as increasing legalization, it was also in a very real sense, a democratization of the law. It applied to everyone.
In addition, the Pharisees’ sought to provide guidance concerning the law to every aspect of life. What is murder, for example? The Pharisees provided ways for people to understand the connection between every day activity and the central precepts of the law, in order to preserve the law’s integrity.
Here, in the Sermon on the Mount, we see Jesus doing very much the same thing. “You have heard it said of old, do not commit murder.” Like the Pharisees, Jesus is offering instruction to his listeners about how to interpret Torah. He’s answering the questions, What is murder? What is adultery?
And think about the way we generally approach such questions. Both in the legal arena and in our own personal moral reflections, we’re likely to try to find ways to interpret actions so that they aren’t judged the more serious offense—thus, instead of murder, people are charged with reckless homicide or manslaughter.
Jesus is doing just the opposite: What is murder? Jesus says, it’s not just the act of killing someone, it’s being angry, or hating, or ridiculing someone. Jesus is intensifying the law, sharpening it, and internalizing it. It’s not just our outward actions that matter, it’s our inward dispositions and inclinations as well.
Last week, we heard Jesus express his complete commitment to Jewish law: “Do not think that I come to abolish the Law. Truly, I tell you, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” And a few verses later: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven.”
We tend to think of Jesus’ teachings in terms of comfortable platitudes—be nice to everyone, can’t we just get along?” an ethic of politeness and kindness. In the Sermon on the Mount, it’s just the opposite. Jesus seems to be ratcheting up and intensifying his moral teaching in ways that most, if not all of us, find quite difficult and makes us uncomfortable.
So our likely response is going to be one of two things. Perhaps Jesus is directing his words only at a select few. Matthew makes clear that Jesus is addressing his disciples while a larger crowd listens in. Perhaps all of this is only meant for the religious elite, monks and nuns perhaps, or really serious Christians. The alternative, also often expressed throughout the history of Christianity is that Jesus didn’t intend for us to obey him. Rather, he offers these instructions to show us that ultimately the law is impossible to keep and we need to ask for the grace of God to save us.
Both of those interpretations are bunk. If the law was understood in any way in Jesus’ day, it was understood to apply to all, and while Jesus does reinterpret the law throughout the gospel of Matthew, he never claims that it isn’t valid—not one letter, not one stroke of a letter—Remember?
So where does that leave us? What do we do with his teachings here? How do we make sense of them? Well, I think there’s a clue right here in these verses. After intensifying and redefining murder to include anger and hate, Jesus turns to personal relationships and experiences we’ve all known. We’ve all had conflicts with other people—we’ve all known times when someone has harbored a grudge or anger against us. Jesus says, “Look, if you’ve brought an offering to the altar, and remember that someone is holding something against you, go quickly and reconcile with that person. Then come back and make your offering.”
There’s something quite interesting about this. One could interpret this as putting reconciliation with another human as more important than reconciling with God, for making an offering, a sacrifice, on the altar, was at least in part about reconciliation with God.
Jesus goes on. If you are being taken to court, reconcile with your accuser while you’re on your way, so that your conflict doesn’t end up in front of a judge.
In both of these instances, it’s important to point out that the one initiating the reconciliation is the one who may have been wronged. Jesus tells the accused to reconcile with his accuser; he tells us to go seek out the one who is angry with us, he doesn’t ask us to give up our animosity.
The same approach helps to explain Jesus’ statements about adultery and divorce, which I don’t have to time to discuss today. Jesus is addressing inner dispositions, not the letter of the law; and it’s important that we don’t try to turn his words into new laws.
But there’s something else that we need to acknowledge. We live in a poisoned and poisonous political culture, with hateful rhetoric and anger on all sides. I don’t know how many people have told me that they can no longer discuss politics with their friends and relatives, for fear of the arguments that might ensue. And certainly one doesn’t need to do more than turn on the television set or open facebook or twitter to experience the vitriol.
Jesus’ words about reconciliation, his powerful rebuke of language that denigrates, is a challenge to all of us to seek a better way; to communicate openly and respectfully, to examine the hate and anger in our own hearts, and to do better. More than that, what if our congregation, our altar, became a witness of Christ’s reconciling love, and a place of reconciliation in our bitterly divided world?